With all the choices of plants for fall and winter interest, and the advantages of late summer and early fall planting (cooler weather and rain for increased root growth), one of the most significant reasons to buy and plant now is that many trees, shrubs, and perennials are on sale. You can get a bargain while dressing up your garden for the upcoming seasons.
The daintiest of all is the autumn crocus, which is advertised as a "magic bulb" that will bloom even before it is planted without a pot or water. So plant the bulbs immediately: a cluster of seven or more, planted 4 inches deep and 2 to 3 inches apart gives a lovely show. Soon each bulb will send up two to six showy, goblet-shaped, lavender blossoms – with no leaves. With ample moisture and cool temperatures, the flowers last for several weeks. In the spring, the strappy leaves will emerge, big and bold in deep green, and grow up to 6 inches high. After about six weeks, the leaves wither and the plant goes dormant, disappearing from sight until it blooms again in late summer to early fall (so be sure to mark the spot where you planted them).
Fall-blooming varieties of pansies can survive through the winter and well into spring and summer. New introductions, such as the Nature Series, are bred for cold-hardiness. Even in Iowa, pansies thrive in the cool fall, and keep growing in winter. (Bring on the snow: They can take it.) When the snow melts in winter, their jolly flower faces gaze sunward. Unlike spring-planted pansies, which wimp out in summer heat, fall-blooming varieties will bloom throughout the spring and well into summer.
Flowers blooming outside in December, January, and February in cold climates is not just a warm-climate fantasy. Chinese witch hazel always heralded the beginning of my holiday season when I lived on the East Coast. Planted in a sheltered area and trained to grow on the south-facing side of our brick house, it would bloom for a month or more. On sunny winter days, the one-inch-long, ribbonlike yellow petals unfurl, resembling small fireworks against a blue sky. Other witch hazels – Japanese and hybrids – bloom later in the season.
Besides their blossoms, other plant characteristics pique my interest in an autumnal to wintry landscape. Well into winter, a wide range of trees and shrubs are resplendent with berries or fruit, including pyracantha or firethorn. An evergreen shrub with small shiny leaves, pyracantha bears brilliant red, yellow, or orange berries that persist through the winter. The plants are thorny and easily trained against a fence or trellis. 'Teton' produces an abundance of yellow-orange berries on a larger frame.
In addition, look to trees, such as hawthorn and crabapple, for colorful berries that will attract a diversity of birds and other wildlife.
For eye-popping fall color, almost nothing can beat the range of colors within the maple family – ranging from brilliant yellow through orange and scarlet to cranberry and burgundy. Sugar maples are always spectacular, and Fall Fiesta maple not only sets the stage for the season, coloring up a good two weeks earlier than other sugar maples, but it is more brilliantly orange and red than most.
Although I cannot grow my favorite cutleaf Japanese maples with our Iowa winters, I have found a good substitute, both for its gorgeous leaf color throughout the growing season and its exquisite grand finale in autumn – Tiger Eyes sumac. Its golden-leafed, rosy-pink-stemmed form of cutleaf Staghorn sumac, and the slight downward arch of the deeply cut leaflets give it an oriental flair.
In autumn the foliage is dramatic – brilliant yellow, orange, and scarlet.
Burning bush sends the season out with a brilliant burst of red foliage before dropping its leaves for the winter. Look closely at the branches to see its corklike "wings" attached on the sides, which is why it's also known as winged euonymus.
Dogwoods and other barks
Without the leaves as a distraction, the bark as well as the form of trees and shrubs is much more evident. Winter Flame dogwood is a favorite for its yellow and orange fall foliage, which hangs on longer than that of most dogwoods, as well as its multihued stems in winter – yellow at the base, deepening to a fiery orange, and tipped with red. Plant them where they will show off – by a white wall or against a backdrop of evergreens. The colors pop even more when contrasted with snow.
The paperbark maple has a beautiful coppery, peeling trunk, giving its look an extra dimension. Light it subtly from below at night for an eye-catching sight. The striped maple, when it is young, has green bark striped with white. As it matures, the green darkens almost to gray. It is striking at any stage.
Most deciduous trees and shrubs are most appealing when they are leafed out. A few, however, take on a fresh and more interesting appearance once the leaves have dropped. The true nature of Harry Lauder's walking stick is revealed in late autumn. Its wonderfully gnarled branches (which was British vaudevillian Harry Lauder's signature staff) are enchanting, and especially beautiful with a dusting of snow.
Evergreens also take on a magical quality when glazed by snow or ice. Additionally, evergreens add their own unique color, texture, and architectural form to the garden year-round. Just look at the variety of plants – from needled evergreens (cedars, pines, hemlocks, etc.) to broad-leafed evergreens (rhododendrons, hollies, leucothoe, and more).
Using any of these plants rewards you with instant gratification – enjoy them this fall and through the winter. Keep the plants well watered so that the roots become established and grow before hard frost.
If it is a dry winter, water when the temperature rises above freezing for several days. In the meantime, enjoy the ever-changing beauty in your garden.
Choose the right plants, and you will have the delight of smelling the sweetness reminiscent of summer – when there is snow on the ground. Warm air carries scent much better than cold air, so in winter, you need to get up-close and personal with the flowers by bringing cuttings inside to take in their heavenly scent.
Shrubs with the most fragrant winter flowers include:
• Wintersweet *
• Winter hazel
• Winter daphne *
• Winter honeysuckle
• Winter jasmine
• Witch hazel *
* plants for mild-winter areas
Cathy Wilkinson Barash is a lifelong organic gardener who enjoys trying new plants – both edible and ornamental – in her Des Moines, Iowa, front garden. She is a past president of the Garden Writers Association.